Two Ash Wednesdays

“Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalms 19: 2-4a)

On Ash Wednesday 2019 I was 10,000 miles from home on a sail boat in the harbor of Akaroa, New Zealand. There were literally no words, no imposition of ashes, none of the customary rituals that have marked the previous fifty beginnings of Lent in my life.

Diana and I were on a cruise down the east coast of New Zealand, and one of our excursions from our ship took us on one of the most peaceful and sacred moments of my life We sailed out into the harbor surrounded by gentle hills and a few caves along the shoreline. The captain of our boat let us drift as the gentle waves kept time against the sides of the small boat and explained that he was going to play some meditation music because it usually attracts a school of dolphins. Like a choir processing to an introit the dolphins appeared on cue and for several awe filled minutes our boat of twenty total strangers sat in holy silence.
[after multiple failed attempts to put a video of the dolphins here I gave up. Please trust me, they were awesome]

After enjoying the dolphins for a time we sailed close to shore where one of the natural caves indented the hillside, and the captain put on some organ music. I don’t remember the tune, but it reverberated off the walls and ceiling of the natural cave like the Hallelujah Chorus in a Gothic cathedral.

Fast forward a year and we were on another let’s-escape-winter vacation. This time we were “only” 1300 miles from home on Isla Mujeres, a beautiful tropical island near Cancun, Mexico. It was time there, as in many Roman Catholic locales, for the carnival celebration known best for the grandmother of all carnivals, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is celebrated all over the world by Christians as a time to party hearty before the solemn season of Lent begins with the Ash Wednesday reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”

We were told by the natives in Mexico that the serious celebrations of Carnival don’t really begin until 10 or 11 pm and often go on till dawn. Needless to say that’s way past my bedtime. But the party there began on Friday and was going strong when we last witnessed some of it several hours before Ash Wednesday officially began.

What we saw during the daytime hours of the Carnival were people of all ages in elaborate costumes dancing in the streets.

We watched a few dance groups in one small town and then saw them load into pickup trucks, golf carts and on motor scooters to travel a few miles to the next town where we saw them perform again as we were trying to make our way through crowded narrow streets that were often closed for 30 minutes or more for the performers to do their thing before moving on to a new location.

These were two very different experiences a year a part on either side of the world to mark the beginning of Lent. One was peaceful and serene in holy communion with the created order. The other was a loud and jubilant celebration of culture and tradition. And both were avenues to the mystery of God. We couldn’t speak to the dolphins in New Zealand, but their majestic presence touched my heart beyond the power of any human speech. And in Mexico I could not understand the Spanish lyrics to the songs of Carnival. But the beauty of the dancing and the costumes—yes, even the outlandish and erotic ones—speak to the human need to dance and sing with joy to the universal mystery of God’s inspiration in all cultures and races.

Both experiences helped prepare this pilgrim to begin the holy season of Lent once more.

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